Architectural Sketching

Bob Borson —  July 11, 2013 — 74 Comments

I get asked a lot (as in every single day) about architects and their ability to sketch.

“Do you have to be good at drawing if you want to be an architect?” or

I want to be an architect but I can’t draw, doesn’t everybody just do 3D modeling these days?”

No, architects don’t just do 3D modeling these days. And, no, you don’t have to draw well to be an architect. I’m not an artist but I can sketch well enough to communicate an idea, and that is what’s important to me.

Michael Malone design sketch - Clyfford Still

Sketching is a skill – not a gift – and with time and practice, anyone can become proficient enough at sketching to effectively work through problems and communicate their intent. I wrote an article 3 years ago titled “Your sketches speak for themselves” and the basic premise of the article was that despite the fact that I’m not a very artistic sketcher, I do believe that I can sketch well enough to have the sketching process serve a role and allow me to work through problems graphically. In that article, I scanned 9 consecutive pages from a sketchbook of mine that was 15 years old and showed – in all its unedited glory – what my sketches looked like, and how I used them to think through my design. Re-reading that post, coupled with my recent job change, gave me the idea to re-evaluate the premise of that article and see if I still believed how important sketching is to an architect.

Michael Malone design sketch 01

In my new office, my partner Michael Malone sketches A LOT. He literally sketches All. The. Time.

Prior to me joining the firm, he was the end-all be-all go-to guy in the office for design, business development, office management, employee training and development. We have 11 employees and a lot of work so let’s just say Michael has to work non-stop to wear all the hats for the responsibilities he is carrying. As a result, he tends to work when – and where – he can. Since he spends a lot of time out of the office, he tends to sketch in sketchbooks and not on trace paper, which allows him to not lose any of his work. All of the sketches in this post are his except for the last few. It will be obvious which ones aren’t his and which ones are mine.

Also, all of the sketch images in this post can be clicked on, allowing them to open up full size in new viewing window.

Michael Malone design sketch 05

Michael designs his projects in his sketchbooks. Afterwards, he has them scanned and distributed to the project architects in our office who will reference them to do their work. You can see from these sketches that the problems he is trying to think through is at a very high level. Massing, floor plans, elevation studies, interior spaces … most of it schematic design stuff. When I told Michael I was going to write this post, I asked if I could borrow his most recent sketchbook so I could scan a few pages. I briefly explained the point of the article and afterwards, he summarized my explanation with the following comment:

” … my sketches create problems while your sketches solve them. 

He wasn’t wrong but to hear it put that succinctly wasn’t entirely fair to him. The point I am trying to illustrate is how architects use sketches to work through different sorts of issues. You’ll see, as you scroll through these first several sketches, that Michael is pretty good at sketching, he definitely has a style. He doesn’t do these drawings for presentation purposes, they are simply how he works through and catalogs his ideas. I’m pretty sure he never thought that they would end up on the world’s 3rd most amazing, [side-mouthed whispering] yet highly irrelevant, architectural website. While he and I both sketch daily as part of doing our jobs, our sketches are different; not just in their quality and technique, but in the goals we have when we set out with pen and paper.

Michael Malone design sketch 07

All of Michael’s sketches today are from the same project. I choose them because they represented his schematic design studies and included plans, sections, elevations, interior perspectives … just about everything except process and construction drawings. That isn’t to say he doesn’t sketch those things, but he just doesn’t do it very often – it isn’t part of the problem he is exploring unless it’s expressed as part of the design.

Michael Malone design sketch 04

Michael Malone design sketch 02

The sketch above is the last one in this post from Michael – a quick section elevation to look at the relationship between a mosaic window wall, a light monitor, the roof deck above, and it’s adjacency to a green roof. Most of his sketches are more about the “what” and not the “how” … the “how is where I come in.

Bob Borson construction sketch 05

I’ve only been in my new office for 2 weeks now but I am involved with most of our active projects. Since part of my role here at the office is employee development, I spend a lot of my time sliding from workspace to workspace answering technical questions and discussing how we can document the construction of the project while maintaining the original design intent. It’s a role I am comfortable with because I think I’m pretty good at design, but I’m also interested in how buildings physically come together.

As much as I don’t want to say I’m “that guy” … you know, the one who sits down in a design meeting and asks “Where’s the mechanical closet?”  or “You know, we are going to need a beam through here right?” but the truth is that I kinda am that guy (just way cooler).

Bob Borson construction sketch 01

Most of my sketches tend to be on trace paper or on plotted out sheets. I have frequently described myself in the following way:

“Ask me what time it is and I’ll tell you how to build a clock”

I don’t mean to flatter myself when I use this phrase, I typically mean it in a disparaging way because I am overly verbal … I will literally talk your head off if we’re both not careful. As I have matured, this attribute has actually turned into an asset – I am good at shepherding people through a process with considerable patience, I really like to explain things. As a result, when the younger architects and interns have a question, I don’t just tell them the answer, I pull out my pen and paper and sketch it through with them – hence, ask me what time it is and I’ll tell you how to build a clock.

My sketches are definitely not pretty like Michael’s but they serve me extremely well. They help me work through problems.

Bob Borson construction sketch 04

These are my sketches, they are almost always snippets and small pieces of a larger part. I tend to sketch to assemblies and relationships between parts. How does something work … ?

Bob Borson construction sketch 03

These sketches were created as I sat with one of my new coworkers trying to work through a heavy-timber truss in one of our projects. These sketches frequently have text in them, questions that I ask myself, questions for other people to think about.

Bob Borson construction sketch 02

Architects should sketch – I am convinced of this. I haven’t ever – I mean EVER – personally met an architect who I thought was a good designer who didn’t sketch. Maybe it’s because the process takes time, requires a person to slow down and think through what they are doing. These sketches don’t have to be beautiful drawings – they aren’t art. They are the result of a process, a creative process that is somewhat unique to the world of designers. You may not think you are very good at sketching but if it helps you work through your thoughts, I would argue that you are in fact, very good at sketching.

Cheers,

Bob signature

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  • Ely Vargas

    OMG you are so inspiring to me, in this part :

    ´´Architects should sketch – I am convinced of this. I haven’t ever – I mean EVER – personally met an architect who I thought was a good designer who didn’t sketch. Maybe it’s because the process takes time, requires a person to slow down and think through what they are doing. These sketches don’t have to be beautiful drawings – they aren’t art. They are the result of a process, a creative process that is somewhat unique to the world of designers. You may not think you are very good at sketching but if it helps you work through your thoughts, I would argue that you are in fact, very good at sketching. ´´ . You literally told my current relationship between my sketches and I, and I felt so hopeful when someone like you talk like that, someone who lives in this profession, inspires me to keep going and push myself more.

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  • David Hatch-Bernier

    I am a professor of Interior Design at a college in Boston. Would you mind if I share this with one of my studio classes? I’m struggling to get them off CAD and into hand drafting to resolve design issues.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Sure thing – help yourself

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  • txbuilder

    “Ask me what time it is and I’ll tell you how to build a clock”

    I am told that I am too detailed, my attempt at clock construction lessons are too long, but leave a detail out and the results of following maybe coo coo.

    Albert Einstein reads and quotes are some of my favorite, and recently provided me with inspiration and a goal: “If you think you understand the complex, but can not explain it briefly, you do not understand it well enough.” (something like that)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      fantastic quote -

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  • blcsquared

    I disagree…to me, these are indeed art (even the tectonic ones).
    They were my favorite part of pin-ups in studio.

  • Aniceth

    How essential is printing in drafting or how neatly should your print look like?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      not sure that it matters all that much anymore – although it should be legible

  • Aniceth

    Do construction lines improve a copy?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      not sure that I understand your question but I’ll take a stab at it. If the construction lines (I’m thinking guidelines, column grids, datum points, etc.) actually add to someones understanding of what they are looking for, I’d say feel free to include them. YOu are definitely trying to convey information but it is up to you to add the artistic bit.

      • Aniceth

        How essential is printing in drafting or how neatly should your print look like?

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          Not too many people hand print anymore so I wouldn’t say it’s all that important. Nobody but me and the one person older than me can block print architectural letters in my office.

  • http://pacific33architects.com/ PACIFIC 33 Architects, Inc.

    I love marker sketching. It’s a great day if I can bust out the Chartpaks.
    -P33A Social Media Maven.

  • Barry Svigals

    This is a great article. one of our team sent it to the whole office. its a message that needs to be heard more widely. thanks!

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  • Jeff Potter

    Lovely! Good luck at MMA…

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Jeff, I appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment. You might be the first AIA National President to ever come onto this site. I think that is pretty cool.

      Cheers

  • Dan Killebrew

    Among all the discussion on the value of hand-eye coordination and the importance of sketching and thinking on problem-solving, this is so far the best post! thanks Bob, keep ‘em coming.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Dan!

  • http://www.decorgirl.net Lisa M Smith

    It is just so refreshing to see real drawings again. There is a creative and organic nature to drawing one can not get from a computer. :)

  • Mark Mc Swain

    Hmm, so my comment (which was far too long) was lost in the Diskus login melee.

    I’ve been sketching my whole life. Education and experience has changed the end result, but not the quantity. While bound sketchbooks are wonderful, but spiral-binding offers lay-flat convenience (and being able to use both side of a page–what, everybody does not do that? )
    Lately my doodles have been wandering off into stained-glass patterns, possibly as a sense of making order from the chaos of rectilinear geometery my pen seems to render.

    All of the architects I have worked with/for have sketched; several with significant skill. I have been told that I have some sketching skill–I do not know if that is so, as noted above, it’s something I do all the time. And, I was taught in the days of board drafting. Which is nothing but a very formalized form of sketching. (And also why I still will add shading, details, and the like, given the opportunity to CDs.)

    But, I’ve also been known to sketch in formulae, too–like trying to find the correct MCD for CMU to king or queen size brick. That, and steel tube sizes plus hat channel to 8″ modular dimensions.

    But, more typically, I’m experimenting with solutions–emulating Usonian board-and-batten wall finishes in an economical manner that allows for utilities and the like.

  • http://www.basabose.me/ Monsieur Basabose

    Great post Bob, what got me here was the fact that not all “designs” as in drawings serve the same purpose or that people dont approach the sketching part in an identical way.

    Great to know that both you and Michael use different styles of sketching for different purposes still aiming at solving the same problem.

    At times I got worried about my own approach to sketching, I personally dont go to tiny bit details as I work alone and am very glad since I still have the pictures of my ideas in me, maybe I need to explore it deeper and be able to give out more details in hand drawings to prepare me for when I will have more than me, myself & I working on a project :)

    Like you said, the more you sketch the better you become, hopefully I will learn not to stop half-way and keep everything inside because I have/know the “final” idea.

  • Cormac Phalen

    Great post brother Bob, I couldn’t agree more. Yesterday we did an office clean up and I was dismayed that as we were filling the garbage cans 99.9% of the drawings were computer generated. Then I stroll up with nothing but trace sketches from the various projects through the 4 years I’ve been there, it was great to see ppl pull them out and look at them. But I couldn’t help wonder where is there big pile of trace sketches? Ok, now let me get back to my sketchbook.

  • Joakin Perez

    Another great post,Bob.
    I’ve been looking through your work, and you are pretty much the kind of architect I expect to become one day, one with a big creativity but at the same time with the a wide construction knowledge, enough to bring those creative designs down to earth successfully.
    I’m currently half way through architecture school down in Mexico, how hard is it to make it as an intern on “Michael Malone Architects”?
    Being part of your team would be more than awesome experience.

  • nisha

    Hey Bob, absolutely love your blog. I’m a student of architecture at the moment. You’re exactly the kind of PERSON (and not just architect) I want to grow up to be. Could you do a post on how to improve sketching skills, please? Thanks.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Nisha,

      You are too kind. Honestly, I am not the person to tell someone else how to draw, but if you want to get better, the best advice anyone will ever give you is to simply draw as much as possible. You’d be surprised how much better you will become just be doing.

      Cheers,
      Bob

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great post Bob. Sketching is an invaluable too. I’ve done them on plywood out on a job site. The architects who are lost without a laptop are lacking an essential skill.
    Probably a great interview “test” either for an architect hiring staff or a client hiring an architect is to hand the person a drawing pad and say “Here, sketch something. Anything you want!”.
    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      For some people, I’m quite sure they would panic at the idea of a “sketch test”. Maybe if you simply put a slew of pens on the table and asked them to pick one, you’d know if they grab the ballpoint, that things were not going to go well …

  • Sigmund Freud

    Why does the first sketch feature a building shaped like a penis? Is it going to be a museum of vintage porn or something?

    • Mark Mc Swain

      Zohmtymes un zigar est only a zigar ist

  • Xanthia

    Thanks… addresses my phobias…

  • http://businessofarchitecture.com Enoch Sears

    Bob how do you do it?!? I have trouble getting out one good post a week and you roll them out like a machine….

    Re: the post: And thus we see the difference between “designer” and “architect”….

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks, but some are clearly better than others …

  • http://businessofarchitecture.com Enoch Sears

    But wait, what are the #1 and #2 most amazing architectural websites? So confused….

  • stefano nicita

    Nice and interesting post about “real” architects. Your blog is fantastic!
    I see that you answer to all the comments, but maybe sometimes you’d prefer a sketch… Best from Rome

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I try and respond to all comments that seem to warrant some sort of response. Glad you liked the post … Best from Dallas (That doesn’t sound quite as exciting as “Rome”)

  • Ted Cleary

    Another interesting post Bob. Always fun to see the raw, “behind the scenes” process-stuff of creativity…..just like I find, generally, new buildings to be more interesting to look at when they’re still at the framed-in stage than when they’re all skinned over & finished.

    Not to be nit-picky here, but just wondering: anybody ever considered, after they scan Michael’s sketchbook drawings, dropping into Photoshop or Corel Draw to quickly adjust brightness/contrast to make the ghost images from the other side of the paper all-but-disappear (except for the blobbiest ink)? At first I was confused, thinking it was all part of the same sketch, with a background lightly sketched in in a sort of collage-y way (kinda like the old Beaux Arts analytique style).

    To young-architect Amy: you’re defin. doing all the right stuff to groom yourself for a lifetime of career growth; it’s all too easy for us to take the easiest way out (often b/c of deadlines as much as laziness) and go first to the design-tool-du-jour such as ACAD or SketchUp. And “even if you never use the idea” it still has value & will prob. influence something else…..like learning a foreign language: I may never need to say “How much will it cost to rent a car?” in Italian but knowing the phrase may very well help some other phrase come more easily said or understood.

    And to Collin: When you say “I’m much faster on the computer but it’s nice to slow down and draw it out first” — I’d say that IS the point. It forces us to think through the ‘problem’ in a deliberate & exploratory way. You might say that’s the same dilemma that affects us all with life in general in this instant-news, quick Wikipedia info world we’ve become accustomed to, that we deprive ourselves of the rich thought process and better answers that come from a slower deliberative way of drinking in & responding to situations…..but that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Ted,

      Thanks for adding your comments to the conversation – I appreciate that.
      I thought about adjusting the pictures so that bleed through marks would either disappear or be minimized but decided that was against the spirit of what I was trying to discuss. These sketches aren’t precious and I didn’t want to hold them out as intrinsic. I do realize that they are hard to process as I’ve presented them here but that’s what we get back here in the office.

      Here’s another example of not processing the images other than for size – three of my sketches here were on trace so I didn’t have to worry about their legibility BUT there is a math error on them that is driving me crazy. If you look at the 5′ overhang dimension that is shown as 1/3rd the length of the beam, the other side (listed as 2/3rd’s) is dimensioned at 15′ rather than the 10′ it is supposed to be. I could have fixed it but like I said, these sketches are thrown up here just as they were created – they are not perfect but rather part of a process of thinking.

      Cheers

  • Robert R. Machado

    Wonderful post Bob! I have been in the Architectural arena for 55 years + and can honestly say that sketching has been a part of my life the entire time. When discussing things with my wife, I traditionally will grab a piece of paper to illustrate my thoughts to her as if she were a client. She dosen’t always like the idea because she claims that she knows exactly what I’m talking about. My thought is “A picture is worth a thousand words”

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      or in my case, a picture is worth +/- 2,700 words. My wife would appreciate more drawings from me most likely.

      Thanks for the comment Robert – I always appreciate it when you chime in.

  • Amy

    Great post Bob. I am a young, unlicensed architect (working through IDP and exams right now) and I sketched a little through school for my own purposes. Then, when I graduated and went straight into a firm, I started sketching what I was supposed to be drafting in AutoCad/Revit to help me understand what it was the partners were asking of me. It helped me understand the way things go together a lot. Now, I keep a sketchbook in my little office/cubicle and use it to record all the things I want to remember. I have all kinds of drawings, quotes, top 10 lists, etc in there from many of my favorite blogs (not naming names here… ;0)) and the occasional design idea hits me that simply must be recorded… even if I never use the idea, it is there for me to remember and to influence further work. I am definitely not a great artist but it works for me. I think its important for designers to get over the stigma associated with drawing ‘poorly’ and just get it out there! I mean, have you seen a Frank Gehry sketch… sheesh

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hah! FG’s sketches are wild.

      I had a friend who keep a small notepad in his pocket at all times and it was full of sketches, doodles lists, affirmations, scripture quotes – you name it. He would fill it up and get another one … repeat, repeat. I can barely imagine how amazing it would be to collect these notepads over the course of a lifetime. Keep at it

  • Chris Witt

    Great article (as usual) but ever better labeling in the “concrete plynth?” sketch!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks and yes – “the dude” abides …

  • Robert Moore

    Great sketches, great post and great quote:“ … my sketches create problems while your sketches solve them “ . Being a sole proprietor my shetches do both, or I’m bi-polar.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      who says it has to be one or the other?

  • wavewriter

    Bravo Bob, bravo…when your client says, “Wow, It looks just like the sketches you did for us,” you know you are an architect.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks – there certainly is that moment of connection between 2d visualization and actual 3d realization that is amazing.

  • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

    The wife just rolls here eyes every time I reach for a pen to explain something, exclaiming “Tell me with your words!”

    Like that’s even possible.

    • Linda Slater

      Cute! My husband and I, both architecturally trained, can’t have a conversation without a pen in our hands and piece of paper!

      • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

        Things would be so much easier.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      genius comment

      • http://proto-architecture.com/blog/ Jonathan Brown

        Whoa…whoa… watch it there. The last thing she needs is encouragement.

  • Melanie Perry

    Another stimulating post, Bob, thanks!

    It’s funny, having grown up in a family of artists (with me being the only one who was not extremely gifted in that area), I actually looked upon my drafting and technical design classes in high school as a way to improve my drawing skills (not because I wanted to go into the profession, I thought I was going to be an accountant heh).

    Now, I still can’t make a picture of a flower or horse so beautiful it looks like it’s almost moving, the way that my mother could, but, I can work out and communicate ideas quite well visually.

    My sister and I still like to compare our high school art class projects for a laugh. We write similarly, but, our drawings vary in rather distinct ways (her perspective projects had people, but, mine had stormwater runoff and street lighting). Hmm… perhaps *that* would make a fun blog post for me?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      that would make s good post – lamp posts and storm water runoff … hilarious!

  • Collin Zalesak

    Hitting the nail on the head again Bob!

    Great post this morning! I have learned that yes my sketches aren’t extravagant, but they do communicate the proper ideas. I am much faster on a computer for modeling but it is nice to just slow down and draw it out before it happens on the computer. I believe “To Sketch” instead of “Not to Sketch” is very important.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      awesome – I am exactly the same way

  • Glenn

    Wow, that was fun to read, it’s really true that sketching is a part of an architects work. even if Computer aided design softwares are available now, you can’t really freely do things in a PC versus a piece of paper and a pencil.

    your post really inspires me to keep on sketching (even though i’m not really good at it), but it just help me think freely for my design and solutions that might occur before, after and during actual construction.

    (i’d say that your sketch is not bad at all. some people just don’t like their own penmanship maybe because it’s already common to themselves.)

    cheers for another great post. more power.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Glenn – really glad you liked the post.

      To clarify, I don’t dislike my sketches, I just sketch differently and with an alternative goal in mind. As a result, my sketches are more process and problem oriented rather than spatial or organizational studies.

      Nobody uses two different pens if they don’t care what their sketches look like …

  • david

    My school is the opposite of what Jess describes. A semester into architecture school and we were already full steam ahead using Rhino and CAD. Be careful what you wish for.

    I didn’t draw at all growing up (I liked music and photography passed down from my father) and so I never really had the building blocks to sketch well in architecture school. The fact we got moved to computers and production so “young” (for lack of a better term) was troubling for me, in terms of my sketching and drawing abilities. My professors always harped on me for not drawing enough and frankly it’s not because I didn’t want to, but I didn’t know how to be productive and communicative with my sketches. It was easier on a computer for me so that’s what I did. But, we all know this isn’t an ideal way to design. As a result, my sketchbook turned into a journal of my thoughts and questions but never materialized into problem solving on paper.

    I suppose it’s never too late to learn. I think I know what I’m doing tomorrow.

    • David

      I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way. Of course I sketch, I am in architecture school. But, I don’t think I sketch nearly enough.

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        :) I knew what you meant. Everybody (architect/desginers) sketches a little but some just seem to make it part of their go-to process. That’s what I wanted to convey in this post. Sketching at any point in the process has some value.

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        :) I knew what you meant. Everybody (architect/designers) sketches a little but some just seem to make it part of their go-to process. That’s what I wanted to convey in this post. Sketching at any point in the process has some value.

  • Nadhrah

    i am not an architect, but i agree with you. In designing (basically anything) sketching is an important part of the creating process. Your post makes me want to sketch when I have the time.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Awesome! Sketch in a book that you can keep – it made be painful to see the beginning sketches but eventually you’ll love to see how things have improved-

  • Jess Hopkin

    I will be sending this to a friend who hates his sketches =) our architecture school puts a big emphasis on sketching, we don’t really touch computers apart from the very basic until 3rd year

    • jAyajade

      :) My school was the same – 6 yr program and you don’t touch computers till the 4th/5th year….

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      sketching is something that you just need to do. The act will eventually lend itself to the sketcher improving their skills (at least to a point that works for them)

    • Marya

      truly its a true way Jess!

    • Jess Hopkin

      We did an assignment last semester where we had to sketch or diagram at least once a day, every day for 6 weeks. I look back at it now and can see my own improvement.